Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thor's Day: A Christian-atheist conversation, Part 2

About Christianity’s non-“holy days”

By Kyle Garza & Morris Dean

[Sequel to “About animal rights]

Kyle: Morris, you claimed in this column on June 5 (“Value experience for its own sake: It’s an art”) that a second flaw of Christianity is that it devalues experience that doesn’t occur on the “holy days.” You wrote that it implicitly demotes days that aren’t sabbaths (or Saint’s days, or other religious holidays) to a lesser status.
    This is perhaps the most invalid point you make, to my mind, primarily because I don’t see it in my life. I go to church on Sundays for fellowship and Bible study, but I do both of those things every day in my week. A “holy day,” after all, is the root of our understanding of “holidays.” It’s just a day set apart as special. Any day could be a holiday, and the presence of a holiday doesn’t negate my ability to enjoy every other day. I don’t love my mother on Mother’s Day and avoid her 364 other days. I don’t show affection to my girlfriend on February 14th and neglect her every other day of the year. I also don’t celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday and live like it never happened every other day of the year. Any day could be a cause for celebration.

Morris: Kyle, I laud your practice of considering every day special. You may recall that in my June 5 column, I concluded by acknowledging that some Christians might “share the sense that experience…is sacred for its own sake.” However, the “…” part of that statement included the qualification “others’ [experience] as well as one’s own, every day.” I’m not sure what your fellowship with a few select humans and Bible study have to do with that.

Kyle: You seemed to be asserting that some days’ sacredness invalidated the sacredness (or “holiness” rather) of other days. I was merely attempting to demonstrate how any day could be made holy or simply “set apart,” and the examples I gave were partially for personal examples and partially for universal examples (the various national holidays). Perhaps the root of the issue lies in how we define “others”: my definition is limited to humans, and yours includes non-human animals.

Morris: I wasn’t asserting that some days’ being holy “invalidates” the holiness of other days, just that something sacred is sacred every day, so that to cordon off Sunday (and Easter and Christmas and Saints Days, etc.) as holy days suggests or even implies that other days aren’t holy. My point was and is that simple. It’s an everyday thing for me – life and death go on every day.

Kyle: Ah, I think I begin to see the issue here, and I have to say that I think it involves a bifurcation on your part. To “cordon off” Sunday or other Christian holidays (the examples you gave) does not necessarily imply or suggest that other days aren’t holy per se. Some days are just “holy” days for different reasons. Life and death (let’s say remembrance of a lost loved one) could be celebrated any day of the week, and I think every Christian I know knows that.

Morris: Right, “cordoning off” doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals (such as yourself) cannot slip under the cordon. It is good that a few Christians (including you) remember to treat all days as holy (in whatever sense of holy you observe), but their and your remembrances are just exceptions to the situation I’m pointing out here, which, in the overall scheme of things, stands: the predominant attitude among Christians is that some days are holy, but most are not.

Kyle: This doesn’t strike me as a predominant attitude, and I am wondering what criteria you are using to evaluate it as a predominant one. Are you perhaps basing this on observations of the Roman Catholic Church? I think here we might be using “Christian” in different senses. Or perhaps the issue is that I am speaking from an “inside” experience while you are speaking from an “outside” one.

Morris: We are indeed speaking from our different experiences. You apparently associate with a better class of Christians than the ones I have associated with or observed in daily life.
    By the way, I added the qualification “whatever sense of holy you observe,” because I acknowledge and accept that the well-being of non-human animals doesn’t seem to be a part of what’s sacred for you, making a joke about “perhaps [feeling] a bit worse every time [you] eat steak from here on out.” And you even just pointed out that “[your] definition [of “others”] is limited to humans, and [mine] includes non-human animals.” That definitely is “the root of the issue” as pertains to our differences on animal rights – the topic of the previous installment of our conversation.
    That root goes deep for Christianity generally, although I am sure that there are some Christians for whom the well-being of non-human animals is of concern. But many Christians who get all holy-feeling over the Bible are fully capable of running (or working in) a slaughterhouse, managing a company devoted to clearing rain forest to raise cattle, or owning a chicken-processing plant.

Kyle: I am beginning to think that this issue is somewhat of a moot point on Christianity. Sure, some Christians might be participating in what you deem to be unethical treatment of non-human animals, but I wouldn’t intrinsically expect an atheist to behave any better, so I don’t see why this is a particular qualm you have with Christianity. I think even Christians would agree with atheists (and I have seen them do so in debates with Peter Singer) that sadistic degrees of animal cruelty should be avoided. But this isn’t an issue privy to religious institutions: it’s an issue with most humans in general. I don’t mean to say that the issue isn’t worth strongly fighting for; I just think the banner isn’t one that should be first staked on Christian soil. It is an issue to take up with people in general.

Morris: Kyle, aren’t you doing a version of bifurcation yourself here? Either Christians have to be alone in disrespecting animal rights (in order for me to criticize them), or I have to criticize other groups as well? Unfortunately, the first installment of our conversation was restricted to Christianity. And that wasn’t just an arbitrary restriction. To my way of thinking, Christianity (and its adherents) ought to champion animal rights. They hold, after all, that their values come from God. And, if a few individuals (some of them Christians, some of them atheists or whatever) have come to see that non-human animals deserve their lives too, then why didn’t the all-knowing Christian God reveal this 2,000 years ago as part of Jesus’s teachings about love? I see this as a moral failure, and, for me personally, it is a pivotal black mark against Christianity – pivotal in the sense that it weighs heavily in my rejection of Christianity.

Kyle: Well I would first establish that there are different domains of life, and thereby different degrees of love owed to each of them (this is why I think it is so important to pinpoint what we mean by life and what distinguishes human life from other forms of it). The first command from Jesus, after all, was to love God first and foremost, and people second. Your argument seems to be that animals ought to be loved equally as humans. If we took this a step further, perhaps you would even say that humans ought to be just as loved as God, which defies the natural created order. Love isn’t owed an animal in the same way it is owed to fellow humans. Just as God is innately above us in the hierarchy of the created world, so humans are above animals. We are in agreement that animals ought not be sadistically tortured, but I would say there are humane ways of giving them their last day. This is where I think you mistook my previous statement as bifurcation. I am not saying you have to single out Christianity or equally criticize other groups too. I just do not think Christianity is the enemy here. Corporations that do not adhere to humane standards of raising and killing animals are the problem. But then I think any killing of animals is a problem to you. I still don’t see how animal pain can be equated to human pain, and I’m not sure we even know with absolute scientific certainty that animal pain is somehow “worse” than plant pain (we don’t stick living cows in blenders after all).

Morris: You asked a question in the first installment of our conversation that I never answered, but need to answer now. You asked:

Is this to suggest that all animals are first-class “citizens” of the planet as well? Would you not value the life of a human animal more than any other (dog, cat, spider)?
Yes, of course, I and everyone else must make distinctions in how we treat one living being compared to another. If a man evidently intent on raping my wife broke into our home, I would be willing to kill him, and would attempt to do so if there seemed no other way to stop him. If I or my wife developed a terrible allergy to our dog, Siegfried, whom we consider a person and treat as a member of our family, then we would have to make other arrangements for him. But this would also apply to either of us, if one of us developed the same sort of allergy to the other.

Kyle: Well that’s a scary thought! Would you not fight harder to maintain the intimacy of the relationship with your wife though? I would hope it would be infinitely easier for you to “put away” your dog than your wife.

Morris: Nowhere near “infinitely,” and the same goes for my wife as regards a choice between me or Siegfried. Your thinking there’s an “infinite” difference underlines again your whopping disrespect for other living creatures.
    To live is a matter of practicality, and we are forced to confront an unlimited number of choices. Other living beings are in various degrees of the same predicament. Which gazelle does a cheetah go after? In which direction does a plant send its roots?

Kyle: Here I would just again insert the necessary distinction we must always make with humans, though: animals have no ethical choices to make. Only we do, and since we do not know where this realm of ethics enters human consciousness, it appears entirely numinous for the time being (a point, I would argue, that serves as evidence for its transmission from a supernatural God).

Morris: We don’t need to know precisely where it arose, only that it arose through evolution of brains and culture.
    You are right that any killing of animals is a problem for me, and it isn’t because I “equate” the pain of non-human animals to that of humans. I abhor such a calculus for rationalizing the slaughter of animals for human consumption, for rationalization it is, given that humans do not need to consume flesh, except in the case when no alternative source of nourishment is available – which can even lead to cannibalism. Now, there’s a moral dilemma: Do you eat me, or do I eat you? We can easily put ourselves in the shoes of the to-be-eaten here, but we need to put ourselves in the place of the cow or the pig who is about to be stunned for slaughter….

Kyle: I think the question that must be asked then is simply why we need to put ourselves in the place of the cow or pig. What is this moral standard founded upon? It seems to be your imagination. You seem to think God is imaginary, and therefore we have no rational reason to obey Him. Likewise, I find the same problem with your conscience. If it arises from your imagination, why obey it? The problem here is huge, then: we have no objective reason to not eat animals. You just have a “feeling” that it is bad (and you are in a “feeling” minority at that: the rest of your evolving homo sapien peers are getting along just fine, with no distinguishable evolutionary disadvantage). This boils the problem down to Hume’s “is-can’t-produce-ought” problem then.
    It is almost as if you have a religious (I could say “numinous” just as easily) reason to not eat animals, with no more foundation than that of a Hindu’s. If anything, I do not see why this “conscience” you obey would not be viewed as an evolutionary flaw in your worldview: something that prevents our species from flourishing—by any means necessary. What accidental mutated advantage could there be in evolving a qualm with eating things that make such a fuss when they die? (I imagine a contributing factor to your not being bothered with eating plants has something to do with the fact that they demonstrate no pain)

Morris: Since “God” is imaginary, the moral values you consider handed down from “Him” are no better founded. In fact, of course, those commandments weren’t “handed down by God,” but were cultural inventions. And some of them were an advance over the values previously prevailing…just as respect for animal rights is advancing, albeit slowly at present, as you point out.
    By the way, going back to the cannibalism situation, in the event that one of us needed to eat the other in order to survive, I can tell you now that – unless you told me you would rather die than eat my unsavory old flesh – I would sacrifice myself in order to save you. And I promise I wouldn’t rise on the third day, so that you would not feel any obligation to leave the Christian Church and found mine.


Stella Gertrude Voss Dean, on her 85th birthday
Kyle: And I would sacrifice myself for you as well, my friend! And don’t worry—I wouldn’t feel the need to run apostate: you haven’t performed any miracles as signs of your divinity! But then you haven’t claimed divinity either. Naturally, I have known you as a human being, and a relative at that (your mother’s great grandson), so it would take something quite miraculous to convince me you were God. I would probably need to see you alive after I had confirmed you had died three days ago. That is what it took for Jesus’ disciples and His own relatives to believe in His divinity; history demonstrates they did go to horrible deaths for that belief, after all. They probably needed some really good hands-on evidence for that belief too, perhaps something like what you see demanded by Thomas in John 20:25. They of course didn’t have to worry about video editing and Photoshop, so seeing and feeling would have to be believing.

Morris: Thanks for returning the favor...Cannibalism poses the choice which human gets sacrificed (whether by choice or force). How about a situation where a human might choose to sacrifice his life for a…lion? Let’s say that I, well-armed, am out in the savanna where the last small pride of lions are known to be surviving, with only a single male remaining. I am aware of this situation. The male lion attacks me, but I have time and the means to kill the lion to protect myself. What do I do? Well, the race of humans is in no imminent danger of perishing, but the race of lions…well, the correct moral choice is clear.

Kyle: Not so clear to me. I know it’s a hypothetical situation, but animal cloning could probably take us far enough to extract the necessary DNA we need from the lion’s corpse to ensure the survival of his species. On the whole, we then save more lives! I’m surprised you chose a lion for this example though—one of those odds species known for infanticide (not so conducive for survival of a species).
    To play along with your hypothetical, though, the human’s life is infinitely of more value than the lion’s, for obvious reasons in my worldview: the human is of greater value in the created order. According to your worldview, however, the lion’s dying off is just another event in the weaving of natural selection. More than 90% of earth’s species have died off after all. And so what? Even Richard Dawkins (I believe you are a big fan of his) admits there is no ethical dilemma that exists in the atheistic worldview. To quote from his work, Out of Eden:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good – nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.
While you see your self-sacrifice as morally noble, I think Dawkins would see it as a flaw in your evolution.

Morris: I think I chose lion because I was able to think of the term for a group of them – a “pride.” [smiles] A trouble with your arguing that the lion’s dying off is just another event in the weaving of natural selection is that humans have chosen to act as selfish bullies and spoil things for other creatures, reproducing themselves at an unsustainable rate and the hell with other species’ rights – even though the destruction of ecosystems will eventually redound to humans’ disadvantage as well. It’s sort of looking as though the human species will be joining the ranks of those that have died off….which will rather confirm that Dawkins was right, and not the Christian apologists (or rationalizers, which I sometimes think to be a more appropriate term).
    We are, of course, reiterating the topic of our first installment, animal rights. But it is good to emphasize our fundamental difference over what we even consider sacred. I suspect that even our respective senses of the word “sacred” differ. I think that, for you, worship is involved. For me it’s not, simply because, by definition, worship involves a deity, and I recognize no deity.

Kyle: I don’t think worship is involved, but I would say reverence is. Would we agree on that definition? “Whatever is sacred is that which is due reverence.” By reverence I mean a proper understanding of something that leads one to a sense of humble respect.

Morris: I can agree on that. I said that I “suspect” worship is involved for you. I seem to have been wrong about that.

Kyle: How about that definition of reverence, though? May we use that in further proceedings in case the need arises?

Morris: Yes, of course. I did say that I could agree on that.

Kyle: Just from inference and without seeing how you would respond, though, I think you might be referring to Peter Singer’s argument that livestock land “ought” to be used for growing vegetation because more food could be made in that way. This strikes me as equivocation of what the word “ought” means though. “Ought” sometimes refers to ethics (you ought to help save someone from drowning) and sometimes refers to pragmatism (you ought to leave now to catch the 3:30 train). Singer’s argument looks like one of pragmatism masquerading as one of ethics. Efficiency of food production has little to do with what kind of food production is morally sound.

Morris: Having values and acting in accordance with them involves a consideration of consequences. If you value something, you have to weigh the results of the various alternative actions in preserving and nourishing the things valued. You can’t separate ethics from pragmatism so easily.

Kyle: I don’t think the separation is a result of my argument. The consequences of one’s actions do not always have ethical implications. “Should I start planting tomatoes or strawberries in my back yard?” “Ought I start writing my paper that is due on the weekend today or tomorrow?” “Should I call grandma to tell her happy birthday or send her a letter?” All of these are questions asked in the imperative sense, and they all involve a pragmatic issue rather than an ethical one, yet each one involves a weighing out of alternative actions.

Morris: Yes, of course: not all “oughts” are ethical injunctions.

Kyle: Likewise with “should this land be used for livestock or crops?” It seems a mere issue of pragmatism rather than ethics. That doesn’t seem to me an “ethical injunction” as you put it. One could feasibly, for instance, remove a particularly harmful species from the earth in order to pragmatically assure the thriving of many other species. Likewise, a species of animal that is easy to raise in mass could be eaten without threatening the environment, and it could meet a pragmatic need to feed lots of people.

Morris: If the ethical question is set aside, then, yes, the first situation you mention might be one merely of pragmatics. But I don’t agree that there is no ethical consideration to start with. The second situation confronts us continually, but note that here, too, ethics underlies the whole. We value “the thriving of many other species” and ethically choose to act for their sake. In the third situation, we might not be “threatening the environment” to raise a particular species of animal in mass, but what about the animals? By declining to eat the species, we act on our valuing both the environment and the lives of the animals in question. The greater good.

Kyle: Half a minute, though. I do not think you are understanding axiology correctly. The existence of values does not necessitate a moral sphere or an ethical dilemma. Pragmatics sets the stage for what is valuable to you, and the sphere of ethics enters that stage only when you get to the imperative case of what you ought to do with what you value. The desire to have sex for instance is valuable to most men, but there is nothing ethical in the value itself. We only enter the realm of ethics when we start setting boundary lines on whom a man can have sex with: one partner? multiple partners? same sex? opposite sex? same species? different species?
    Here then is where I see the problem with your reasoning: “We value ‘the thriving of many other species’ and ethically choose to act for their sake.” The matter becomes one of ethics at the point of what we choose, not in the realm of what we value. Thus far, you have established an arbitrary value that is probably not universal: “the thriving of many other species.” While biodiversity is pragmatically advantageous (a food chain makes for a “healthy” environment), there is nothing ethical about its existence. Notice also that the thriving of the species is still happening today: cows and pigs are definitely in no danger of going extinct. And for large portions of their lives (if treated humanely), they probably eat, sleep, and mate in as much thriving as an animal can experience (Lord knows how much that is).

Morris: Axiology? – the study of value, or goodness, in its widest sense, right? I’m sorry I confused you. When I’ve talked about values, I’ve meant moral values, not things like which flavor of barbecue sauce you prefer on your baby lamb.
    But no, I did not have Peter Singer in mind when I implied that clearing rain forests to raise cattle was a very bad thing to do. Besides, preserving rain forests isn’t about being able to grow vegetation for food, but about preserving atmospheric balance and protecting the myriad species that inhabit those forests. It’s about protecting the environment continually, day by day, out of reverence for Mother Earth and out of pragmatic necessity.


Kyle: I think this point is a bit too hypothetical for me to follow now. I think we can at least agree on the idea that we should aim for preserving “atmospheric balance” as you put it, and efforts could and should probably be made to protect endangered species in forests as well.

Morris: “Hypothetical”!? Yes, indeed, let’s agree that we ought to do our best to protect Mother Earth and her children.

Kyle: Hypothetical in the sense of “I know it probably happens somewhere in the world, I just don’t know of any specific instances off the top of my head.”

Morris: That’s okay. I often can’t even remember the name of the couple who live down the street.

Kyle: I think this question opens an interesting train of thought. Taking care of the environment makes sense to me, but I don’t see an immediate correlation between being a good steward of the ecosystem and honoring the experience of all non-human animals (vegetarianism?). The biosphere as a whole is certainly worth investing in; I think that even in a consumer culture. Even Genesis 2:15 notes, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” I recycle and don’t throw trash on the freeway if that is what you were looking for. Still, taking care of the environment and eating the flesh of non-human animals are two separate issues. Feasibly, one could have a healthy, flourishing environment and still eat meat: every natural predator in the world proves this true.

Morris: Being a good steward of something rests on our valuing it, either for its own sake, or for our sake. When it comes to the environment or the ecosystem or the biosphere, we’re talking not only about our home, but also the home of all life on the planet – of the life of the planet itself, I like to think: Mother Earth. I am suspicious of talk about “investing in” these things because of the connotation of return on investment for the humans involved – the rich humans involved, who are exploiting the planet and other humans – not to even mention non-human animals – and exploiting them more and more often for short-term profits, not the long-term good of the whole.

Kyle: It seems then that this is an issue to take up with humanity at large rather than whatever few Christians may be involved in the exploitation of nature.

Morris: Right, but that’s a different conversation.
    I’m willing to interpret Genesis as valuing the Garden for its own sake, and, again, I laud you for recycling and not littering. Natural predators are of course a part of nature, but man is not one of them. Humans evolved as herbivores and discovered that meat could be made palatable and digestible by cooking it, and that it didn’t taste too bad either. I sympathize with you in desiring to find arguments to condone your love of steak; it’ll be hard to give up meat…when you come around to my way of thinking. [smiles]

Kyle: So if humans can stomach meat, which is your primary argument against it: it causes unnecessary pain to animals, or we have the ability to choose to eat plants instead?

Morris: The first of those, I think. And it’s a matter of more than unnecessary pain – it’s a matter of taking the animals’ lives, whether any pain is involved or not. But pain is involved – industrial farming and slaughter of animals involve hellish, unconscionable treatment of animals, which can be completely avoided by human abstinence from consumption of flesh. (And, by the way, an argument wouldn't be based on our “ability to choose to eat plants instead,” but on the fact that we don’t need to eat animals, but do so primarily for pleasure and out of habit.)

Kyle: Well, you had admitted that somewhere in humanity’s evolutionary process, ape-like humans adapted to eat meat. I imagine that is an inconvenient truth for you because you are thereafter offering that humans eventually also evolved a conscience that should be telling each of us “but don’t eat the meat,” though apparently most of us ignore that mutated conscience. The problem we have here is that we really don’t know where or how that Jiminy Cricket first appeared or where it is in our brains. So it seems you are deferring to an abstract idea that tells you not to eat meat, while the problem you have with Christianity is an “abstract” God who says we can. I think that puts us at an impasse.

Morris: Right, herbivorous members of Homo learned that if they cooked a dead animal, they could eat it okay, and it made only a few of them very sick. And they got used to the odd taste after a while and learned some culinary tricks to improve the taste.
    I can’t tell you precisely how conscience arose, but I am sure it isn’t a faculty that everyone has in even approximately equal measure or quality. I believe that Jesus’s love ethic is considered to have been new and unique, and apparently it applied only to fellow humans. So, even Jesus didn’t have a particularly high-quality conscience.

Kyle: But do you not see the problem here? If you do not know how the human conscience arose, and therefore how it ought to function, what rational grounds do you have for listening to your conscience? Thus far it seems like you are just using your imagination to invent values. Why expect any human to behave differently based on what his or her conscience dictates?
    And to the contrary, Jesus established a better, higher quality for the conscience: it needs to adhere to God’s standards of what is good. We ought not base morality in pragmatics, or Kant’s categorical imperative, or Bentham’s utilitarianism, or hedonism. Humans are rightly accustomed to establishing the highest standard of morality in the question, “Well who says so?” Christianity offers an answer to that ultimate question of morality. God, the architect of morality (and to a much larger degree, the universe), said so. I think Christianity offers a better foundation for morality than what you have thus far offered.
    One line of questioning I’d like to open up is that of our definition of life itself. I suppose the first thing I began to wonder in this discussion was, “Why do you not also consider plant life sacred?” Perhaps a nice place to start would be to question where you think a human life truly becomes human. Likewise, when does an animal’s life begin? Thus far you have only established “experiential” life as morally sacred. I wonder if we ought not pinpoint what makes human and non-human animal experience “special” (and what the key differences are between human and non-human experience). Narrowing this down might help us start to better understand what sets us apart from plants and what really makes human and non-human animal life “sacred.”

Morris: We touched on this in the previous installment, and I acknowledged that “plants are also ‘other living things’.” Interestingly, in the time since then, I have been the beneficiary of “our conversation leading each of us to a better understanding of our own and each other’s position.” That is, I have come to better understand that I do consider plant life, too, to be sacred – worthy of reverence. I have experienced directly in the past few weeks, on my hands and knees in my garden, that I can’t lop off the branch of a shrub or a tree – or cut a flower – without “taking thought” (as I had already begun to do when it came to cutting a worm in two unnecessarily, or discovering that a bird had killed itself by crashing into a window of my house). And I feel that such taking thought – such mindfulness – enriches my experience as a human being.
    The enrichment comes, for me, through experiencing love, or compassion, which I believe is the operative emotion of my “art of valuing experience for its own sake.” I have – and I’m sure you have too – many times had an overwhelming sense of love for complete strangers, as we’ve recognized ourselves in them, or recognized our mother, our father, a sister, a brother…recognized in each person someone who deserves no less than we to thrive, someone who has longed for something and suffered loss just as we have.
    For me, over recent years, the meaning of love for animals has been amplified (I mean non-human animals), as I’ve meditated on the implications of evolutionary theory and our relatedness with other animals. And we are related to plants as well….
    And yet I must kill vegetation in order to live – even me, a human with my ethics that call on me to forgo the killing of animals to satisfy a taste (that I actually no longer possess). It would be a very pure human being indeed who starved himself to death in order to forgo the killing of plants as well. Maybe a justification for killing plants can be found in considering how much good a person could do by remaining alive. But I am simply not prepared to investigate that at this point. It’s all too new to me, a result of this conversation we are having.

Kyle: Let’s perhaps keep this simple then: when does a human life become worth valuing; i.e., worth being “compassionate” towards? I think the easiest platform to begin exploring is that of humans since we know the human experience better than any other. When do you begin feeling compassion for human life? Would it be at conception or a particular stage of human development in the womb? I think if we can figure where you stand on this, it will be easier to figure out when and why we value plant and animal life. Personally, I am of the opinion that the first zygote (union of mother and father DNA) is where human life begins because I think that our DNA is the most reducible, observable element of humanity.

Morris: I am not interested in pursuing that line of inquiry. Nor do I see how it is relevant to our discussion. As I took pains to try to express above, my sense of connection with other lives is from the heart, not from theoretical calculations about “when life begins.”

Kyle: Come now though, Morris. You said, “I’ve meditated on the implications of evolutionary theory and our relatedness with other animals. And we are related to plants as well….” That doesn’t sound like an argument “from the heart” at all: that’s an appeal to something Richard Dawkins suggested to you in a book, and it is most certainly an idea that appeals to a theoretical calculation about when life began since, after all, we don’t know what the first mutating self-replicating cell was (the thing that all evolutionists must axiomatically assume to be, but have no idea how it came to be). Yet you just said your opinion that all life is connected hinges on evolutionary theory. I don’t think you can have it both ways, just as I don’t think you would respect any opinion of mine based on “I feel that God is real from my heart.”
    At the bottom line, “we’re all connected” just won’t do because we know there are fundamental differences between humans, plants, and animals. I just want to see what you think those differences are. They are markedly significant differences, otherwise we would not be having this conversation about ethics, something only humans are capable of exploring.

Morris: I experienced love for non-human animals before I ever heard of Darwin. I loved them before I understood from evolutionary biology that we were related and had a common ancestor.
    A trouble with your feeling that God is real is that it involves the proposition, “God is real,” for which there is no evidence. I feel in my heart that I will die peacefully, with no second thoughts about not believing in God. For this there is the evidence that other atheists have managed a peaceful death, but whether I will have second thoughts or not remains to be seen.

Kyle: This will open up nicely to a new discussion, ideally in a different thread. There is evidence for God’s existence, but it’s probably not the evidence you are demanding. What sort of evidence would you demand so that God’s existence would be proved to you? Would it be helpful perhaps if He came to you in human form and performed a few miracles in your sight? I’ve read that He tried that once, but people still didn’t believe Him.
    How someone feels about a proposition naturally does not prove its veracity one way or another, though, even if they go to their deaths peacefully believing it to be true. If you really did believe that, you would probably place more weight in the deaths of Jesus’ apostles for what they believed to be true.

Morris: If there is a God and She somehow makes Herself known to me, I'll listen to Her....
    You referred to fundamental differences between humans, plants, and [non-human] animals. Plants are different from animals in that they are rooted in one place. But even there they have developed ways to cast their seeds to the wind, etc. Animals differ from one another in physical form; appropriate habitat; manner of conception, gestation, etc.; intelligence; methods of communication; and many others that we can learn more about from reading books. That last item, I believe, uniquely applies to humans: they can write and publish books. We have already considered that we are continually confronted by ethical dilemmas what to do when we seem to need to decide between one organism to the detriment of the other. Having ethical values helps us immeasurably, as does having the ability to weigh pragmatic consequences.

Kyle: Two fantastic lines of thought here! Humans are the only creatures capable of tapping into the realm of semiotics: I’m very glad you consider this a strong distinction. This strikes me as a point that would indicate some level of Truth in Christianity, though. God is described in John 1:1 as the Word (logos), and humans are the only creature created in His image; i.e., we share aspects of His nature that other creatures do not. There is something semiotic about God’s nature, and therefore there is something semiotic in man’s nature. Christianity therefore offers an explanation for this distinguishing feature of humanity. Your worldview, to my knowledge, does not.
    I think the same goes for the dimension of ethics. Only humans have the ability to peer into the realm of morality. This is another thing Christianity accounts for: God created man with a spectrum of morality (do not eat of a certain tree), but man also had the power to choose to disobey. These are all the ingredients you need for a moral agent. Your worldview, to my knowledge, offers no explanation of where morality comes from, nor does it seem to be making any progress towards an answer.


[click to enlarge and read the quotation]
Morris: Logos arose through evolution and culture, and it appears that we both need to do more reading in that area. It’ll probably need to be you – I’m getting too old fast.
    Kyle, I’d like to follow up on one thing you said in the first installment that I just let slide at the time. You said that you were looking forward to learning how my early years’ exposure to Christianity “is subconsciously affecting [my] interpretations of everything [you] say“ - emphasis mine. Your choice of the word “everything” – does that imply that you think I’m somehow distorting or refracting literally everything you say? And why do you pinpoint my early years’ exposure to Christianity? I’m quite sure that my recent exposure to the writings of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens has been hugely more influential than any “Christian experience” I ever had. And note that I came to these thinkers’ general positions on my own and picked up the first of their books that I read (Sam Harris’s The End of Faith) because I saw an advertisement for it in the New York Times Review of Books and thought to myself, He believes what I do! I was so excited to find a kindred spirit who had written a book seeming to express what I thought, I can’t tell you.

Kyle: “Everything” was a bit hyperbolic. I studied the impact of “critical periods” of human development in my education classes in college, and the majority of our human “critical periods” occur before we hit 20, thus I wanted to focus on your early years’ exposure to Christianity. For instance, when you describe the “Christian experience,” how much personal Bible reading did that involve for you? Did you read the entirety of it? Did you read it for yourself at home or did you attend churches where the preacher was the primary means of knowing what was in the book? I’m curious to know this particularly because you said you gleaned more from the writings of “The Four Horsemen” (as I’ve heard some people call them). It would be interesting to know how much reading you have done on both sides of Christianity.
    I think you had mentioned elsewhere that one of the first “turnoffs” to Christianity you experienced was hypocrisy in the church. Do you think that was the main thrust?

Morris: Thanks for acknowledging that “everything” was a hyperbole. I wanted you to be the one to describe it that way, however. [smiles]

    So far as I can remember, I read on my own what portions of the Bible I did read, starting out, I guess, as assignments for Sunday School lessons. During high school, I was a member of a “Bible quiz” team, and we prepared for the quizzes by reading the books we would be quizzed on. Then I had assigned reading in the Old Testament for my Literature I class my freshman year at Yale. I wrote a paper on The Book of Job, for example. To the best of my recollection, I interpreted the book as representing Job at the end as unsold by the show God had staged for Satan, so he looked down when God praised him to Satan and didn’t let on that he had doubts about what God thought he had demonstrated. I have not read the entire Bible and, at this point, I cannot imagine doing so.

Kyle: That interpretation of Job seems like a very poor practice of hermeneutics: one of eisegesis rather than exegesis. Are those terms familiar to you? Consider the full text instead of just what you perhaps would like to interpret in the last chapter: even when Job bewailed his state in the time that God proved Job’s quality to Satan (mind you, he was “proving” it for Job too; Job couldn’t have known how fully he trusted God before the proving process), he recognized his state as a righteous man who still owed God reverence, and yet had nothing to fear from God because God was his highest value in his life. He said, “Keep silent and let me speak; then let come to me what may. Why do I put myself in jeopardy and take my life in my hands? Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him; I will surely defend my ways to His face. Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance, for no godless person would dare come before Him! Listen carefully to what I say; let my words ring your ears. Now that I have prepared my case, I know I will be vindicated.” (Job 13:13-18, emphasis added). Does that at all indicate a man who doubted God in any way? If that is how you read the Bible in your college years, I would be deeply concerned with how you read it in your youth.
    If I may probe further, which books do you think you “know” well to this day? I’m curious if your understanding is the basic “the Old Testament is all just _______” and “the New Testament is all just _______” that most atheists have. I’m wondering which books you haven’t read as well.


Morris: I am familiar with “exegesis,” but not with “eisegesis”; which one of us is going to explain the terms to the reader?....[While exegesis is the process of drawing out the meaning from a text in accordance with the context and discoverable meaning of its author, eisegesis occurs when a reader imposes his or her interpretation into and onto the text.] I can’t remember whether my professor thought I was doing ex- or eis-egesis. That was almost 54 years ago.
    I said I hadn’t read the entire Bible, but I’ve read most of it, including the entire New Testament – the Gospels, the Acts, the letters…but it’s possible I failed to read all of the bizarre Book of Revelations. Can you imagine reading the entire oeuvre of a crack-addled rap artist, however many millions of times his “songs” have been downloaded?

Kyle: I have a tough time with Revelation as well: eschatology is still important enough to invest in trying to understand though. It’s especially eerie if you look at the national alliances that it predicts and what we see in the world today.

Morris: I’m sure I’ve read less of the Old Testament, missing probably most of the minor prophets. I agree with most that the King James translators rendered the Bible in beautiful language, and I have read and enjoyed passages of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, and other books, especially of the Old Testament.

Kyle: I think you would even more fully enjoy the beauty of the original language. Sometimes English just falls so short of what is expressed. English’s expressive limitations actually account for quite a lot of what folks find troublesome in the Old Testament (Paul Copan’s work is quite insightful in delving into that).

Morris: But back to your query about my experience of hypocrisy. It wasn’t that big a deal. And it was not a “first turnoff.” In fact, the period I was thinking of when I said that was in my fifties. It was probably more like “the straw that broke the camel’s back” – a relatively unimportant thing in itself, but it added to the stack of papers in the indictment against Christianity (against religion, really). I mean, I associated myself with this men’s study group (in an Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill) as a sort of last-ditch effort to find something in religion, and what I found was even worse than nothing, a bunch of crotchety old farts about as stuck in their ruts as you could imagine.

Kyle: Would you say these six items we are covering in these dialogues is the full “stack of papers in [your] indictment against Christianity”? And I’m still wondering what the first thing was then that started your departure from the Christianity you knew.

Morris: I don’t think they are, but I’d have to go back over my last eight years of blogging to remind myself of the others that I’ve thought of so far.
    One memory is still almost palpable: I was 16 or 17. It was Sunday morning, and I was sitting in a pew of the First Baptist Church in Tulare, California. The pastor, or whoever was leading communion and performing the symbolic breaking of bread and sipping of wine, had asked the ushers to pass around the stainless steel holders of little glasses of wine, and one of the holders was coming down the aisle toward me. It was a momentous moment. I’m sure my heart raced. Should I, shouldn’t I?
    I grasped the wine holder and passed it on to the next person, taking none myself. I had, at least tentatively, answered the question, Did I believe in the Resurrection? No, I did not….

Kyle: Fascinating that it left such an impact on you! Do you think you had come to that conclusion long before that? I’m still wondering where that at all began.

Morris: I came to that conclusion between the last time I’d drunk the “blood of Jesus” and the time recounted. Since I went to church regularly, I guess we’ve discovered the very week (or month – I don’t remember whether the church did communion every week or every month).
    Is there anything else from the first installment that you’d like to follow up on with me, a question I ignored, a point you wanted me to acknowledge but I didn’t?

Kyle: I think that right now the topic I am most interested in is defining what we mean by “life.” Beginning with human life will be a good stepping stone that will help us establish what sets human life apart from animal and plant life. Your initial response seems to be simply that humans, animals, and plants are all “living.” But I still want to see what you mean by that.

Morris: Well, that’s easy enough, and I don’t even have to come up with my own wording. I’ll just quote Wikipedia’s opening paragraph on “Life”:

Life is a characteristic distinguishing physical entities having signaling and self-sustaining processes from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased (death), or because they lack such functions and are classified as inanimate.
Kyle: Essentially then, life is just anything that has self-replicating cells, correct? What sets humans apart from animals and plants then? And do you not care to make any such distinctions?

Morris: I thought I already answered that.

Kyle: Indeed you did, partially at least. Though you have still definitely evaded answering where you think a human life first becomes human. I think knowing that would prove quite useful in further explorations, and I find it interesting that you would avoid providing such simple and harmless information.


Morris: The human DNA is of course right there when the human sperm and the human egg get together. Is that human enough for you?
    Kyle, aside from your being a lot like a bulldog and having a tendency to grab my pant leg and shake me, I’ve enjoyed this installment of our conversation even more than the last, except that it has gone on far too long. I’m thirsty, hungry, and in need of a very long sleep.
    But I can say again that our exchanges have afforded me a deeper sense of knowing what you believe and what I believe. I have come to like what I believe even better than I did before, relative to what you believe.

Kyle: Well, I suppose that providing a little “shaking up” for a man quite set in his ways isn’t always a bad thing. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look; at 45 they are caves in which we hide.” Perhaps a Platonic ascent from the cave lies in your future!
    I still cannot thank you enough for suggesting these dialogues. They are so fun! I am especially enjoying the interchange in this modern medium: this kind of exchange probably didn’t exist twenty years ago: a neat thought. This kind of exchange also probably doesn’t exist nearly as much as it should today between Christians and atheists. Civil, non-proselytizing, humor-peppered, cross-generational—it’s enough to make a good documentary.

[The next installment of our conversation will be about Morris’s contention that Christianity was founded on fabrications, on “fantasies, day-dreams, hallucinations, delusions, fanciful notions, manic visions, wishful thoughts, magical thinking, received myths...that simply aren't true – articulate burning bushes, talking snakes, waging spirits, parting red seas, immaculate conceptions, bodily resurrections, apocalyptic returns, final judgments, heaven, hell…,” as he wrote on June 5.]


Copyright © 2014 by Kyle Garza & Morris Dean

1 comment:

  1. Kyle, pragmatic (i.e., apparently non-ethical) reasons for not eating animals were stated in a letter to the editor of the Durham Herald-Sun this morning. The following was written by Douglas Hines, of Durham:

    Say no to meat, dairy

    Last weekend the drinking water of 400,000 Toledo residents was fouled by animal waste. With unfettered growth of animal agriculture and ineffective discharge regulations, it will happen again in our own state.
        The problem has become pervasive. Waste from chicken farms has rendered ocean off the East Coast unfit for fishing. Waste from Midwest cattle ranches carried by Mississippi River has created a permanent "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico larger than that of the infamous 2010 BP oil spill.
        Animal agriculture dumps more pollution into our waterways than all other human activities combined. Principal pollutants are animal manure and fertilizers, as well as soil particles, organic debris and pesticides from feed cropland. Manure and fertilizers promote growth of toxic algae that poison drinking water supplies. Organic matter feeds microorganisms that deplete oxygen and kill fish.
        Effective regulations to limit dumping of animal waste into water supplies have been blocked by the meat industry.
        Fortunately, every one of us has the power to stop this outrage three times a day by saying “no” to polluting meat and dairy products. Our local supermarket offers ample alternatives. Entering "live vegan" in a search engine provides useful recipes and transition tips.

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